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Court bid to halt $35b WA gas project

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

Environmentalists are demanding the West Australian Supreme Court throw out state approvals for the controversial James Price Point LNG processing hub because of serious conflicts of interest on the state's Environmental Protection Authority.

The Wilderness Society Western Australia will launch the action today as part of a bitter, long running battle against the proposed giant hub to process gas from Woodside Energy's planned $35 billion Browse Basin project.

The WA EPA recommendations on the project had to be made by its chairman alone after the other four board members stood aside at the last minute due to conflicts of interest. Two members owned shares in Woodside, one was employed by one of the joint venture partners in the project and one as a state bureaucrat assessing the proposal.

According to an investigation by The Wilderness Society, the board members declared their conflicts, but were still allowed to participate in deliberations on James Price Point for up to three and a half years, before delegating their responsibilities to the EPA chairman Dr Paul Vogel just a few months before he announced the EPA's recommendation to approve the massive project in July.

The Wilderness Society will allege West Australian Environment Minister Bill Marmion was aware of the conflicts and allowed them to proceed.

The original approval was subject to a number of environmental conditions to protect migrating whales, dolphins and fossilised dinosaur footprints, and a recent review of the decision added more protections.

But The Wilderness Society will argue that under the WA EPA Act members are not supposed to consider matters where they have declared a conflict, and at least three members are supposed to vote on any decision.

The project has yet to get final approval from federal environment minister Tony Burke, who will take advice from his own department, but is one of the first to be assessed under a bilateral agreement between the commonwealth and the states to streamline decision making.

Wilderness Society national director Lyndon Schneiders said the ''deeply flawed'' process at James Price Point was a ''case study in how not to build public confidence'' and showed exactly why the Commonwealth should not trust state governments with environmental decision making.

As Woodside prepares to make a final decision by mid next year, analysts have been assessing the cost of decision-making delays for the processing hub and some joint venture partners reportedly prefer the option of a processing on an offshore floating platform.

The projected has divided the local Broome community.

The Gillard Government recently shelved plans to hand over environmental decision making to the states because negotiations with state governments were resulting in wildly varying agreements. Ms Gillard has asked the states to come back with a unified position on how to streamline state and federal processes.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said the agency was yet to be notified of any legal action.

Mr Marmion has declined to comment on the matter.

 

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